CARBONDALE — SIU's football season of 11 straight weeks was decided in four. And not the four you're thinking of.
After splitting the first four games of the season, the Salukis managed to follow up their worst game of the season with their best. After a seven-point loss at home to No. 20 Northern Iowa in its Missouri Valley Football Conference opener, SIU gave up the first 35 points of the game at ninth-ranked South Dakota State, eventually falling 49-14, and then rolled over 15th-ranked Illinois State 42-7 on Homecoming the following week.
"They were able to come back and regroup and believe in each other, and go out there and put it together," second-year head coach Nick Hill said. "That shows when you do put it together, what it can look like, but that's consistency. You can't look like that one week and not like that the next. We did that, at times, in all the games we played."
The Salukis managed to top winless Indiana State on the road the following week, 45-24, before disaster struck at seventh-ranked South Dakota. Starting quarterback Sam Straub, arguably the one guy SIU couldn't lose if it wanted to challenge for the league title, broke a bone in his wrist when he fell on the sideline after a play and tried to brace himself. He underwent season-ending surgery the following week, and SIU's offense was never the same.
Backup quarterbacks Tanner Hearn and Matt DeSomer combined for six touchdowns and eight interceptions in SIU's last four games. Two of those interceptions were returned for touchdowns, as SIU matched last year's 4-7 mark and tied for ninth place in the Valley with Missouri State at 2-6. The Salukis lost their last three games, two of which were at home, by a combined score of 92-62, but there were a lot of positives in 2017.
Lane Reazin became SIU's first all-conference first team punter since 2009. Senior tackle Austin Olsen, which helped the Salukis allow 20 less sacks than the previous year (nine), and sophomore safety Jeremy Chinn were second team all-conference picks. Running back D.J. Davis, who led the team in all-purpose yards (124.8 yards a game), and Jerry Rice Award finalist Anthony Knighton were honorable mention all-conference picks.
Chinn, linebacker Cody Crider and defensive back James Ceasar could be team captains next season.
"I feel good about where our defense is heading," Hill said. "We'll lose Kyron (Watson) and (safety Ryan) Neal and (cornerback) Craig (James), where we've gotta replace a few guys, but the nucleus of our team is coming back. Those three guys coming back, they're going to be going into their junior years, and they'll be the leaders of our defense. They're outstanding football players, they do everything right, and they'll compete."
SIU athletic director Tommy Bell also believes the team is on the right path.
"I think we've got a great culture of growth, and the leadership is really good," he said. "I like who we're recruiting. I think we got a lot of high-quality young men in our program."
Straub, who threw for 1,886 yards, 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions in his first season as the starter, is expected back in time for spring ball. SIU could also return three of its top-four running backs, Daquan Isom (4.6 yards a carry in 2017), Davis and Jonathan Mixon (193 yards, four touchdowns on 67 carries). The Salukis could also return three starters on the offensive line, starting tight end Jake Varble, and five of its top-six receivers.
Hill plans on retaining his entire coaching staff, but lost two last year to FBS programs in the offseason.
SIU will open the season next year on a Thursday night at Murray State, Hill said. The Salukis then play at Mississippi, an FBS program, and host Southeast Missouri State before taking their bye week before opening conference play. As part of a new rotation, SIU will lose Northern Iowa and gain North Dakota State back on the schedule in 2018 and 2019.